by John Boland

It was the year of Susan Boyle and The X Factor, for those who care about such things. It was the year in which Michael Jackson’s death caused even the most sober of broadcasting organisations to lose all sense of balance and perspective. And it was the year when economic realities should have put paid to the manufactured fantasy world of  “reality” television but didn’t.

It was also the year in which technology enabled everyone to record programmes directly into their television sets, either on the day or weeks in advance. This made the critic’s life much easier, though it didn’t make the programmes any better. Maybe in 2010.

Yet amid all the customary duds, some programmes stood out like good deeds in a naughty world, and at this time of the year it’s more cheering to celebrate what was bracing rather than fret about what was tawdry and banal, and 2009 did provide some memorable television experiences.    

On the documentary front, there were a few RTE1 Arts Lives profiles that registered strongly – Sean O Mordha’s film about Patrick Collins, Ann Marie O’Callaghan’s on Thomas Kinsella and Charlie McCarthy’s on Seamus Heaney, each of which was more serious and engrossing than has been the recent norm on RTE. I liked very much, too, the quirky Swiss-made Riviera Cocktail (screened on RTE1), which told how Dublin musician and ex-RAF man Edward Quinn ended up in the South of France in the 1950s taking wonderful photographs of movie stars and other celebrities for various media outlets.

Across the water, there were also fine arts programmes, notably BBC2’s The Private Life of an Easter Masterpiece, which detailed how one of Caravaggio’s greatest paintings ended up hanging unrecognised for 70 years on the walls of a Jesuit meeting house in Dublin; the same channel’s illuminating profile of John Donne, with fervent readings of the poems by Fiona Shaw; and The Art of Russia, just ended on BBC4, in which Andrew Graham Dixon expertly took us through that that country’s  turbulent political history and looked at the great visual art that resulted, most of it still unknown in the West.

There were arresting documentaries, too, on social and political themes. The House (RTE1), in which Tanya Doyle, along with her father and siblings, revisited the family’s Clondalkin home and confronted their troubled domestic past, was an affecting story about “loss, letting go and moving on,” as Tanya herself put it at the programme’s outset.

And TG4 continued to be quirky and adventurous in its factual programming. Most of its achievements were modest rather than headline-grabbing but perhaps were all the better for that. Certainly in Cogar and a few other strands, it came up with riveting half-hours. I especially liked Thar Saile, in which Ann Marie Ni Dhubhcoin encountered Irish-speaking inhabitants of various European cities and conveyed a vibrant sense of the people she met and of the places in which they found themselves.  

However, for anyone keen to see arresting documentaries – whether on social, political, religious or artistic subjects – BBC4 was the year’s outstanding channel. I was particularly taken by The Secret Life of Airports (BBC4), a fascinating series that explored the development of air travel throughout the 20th century, using reminiscences by pilots, ground crew, customers and social commentators to complement a wealth of archive footage. The series was mainly focused mainly on Heathrow, but its insights were applicable to air travel anywhere.

Also very fine was the same channel’s Digging Up the Dead, in which Michael Portillo went back to his Spanish roots to explore the legacy of unresolved bitterness that still remains from that country’s violent past. In an attempt at belated reconciliation, the Spanish government now wants the dead of all sides to be acknowledged, but the result is that, in the process, old wounds have been reopened. Portillo approached the subject with candour, though with impressive sympathy, too. 

Over on Channel 4, Terror in Mumbai used terrifying footage from the atrocities in India to viscerally convey a horror most of us could otherwise have not fully imagined. It wasn’t easy viewing but it was the year’s most gripping, if disturbing, documentary. 

2009 was also, of course, the year in which Pat Kenny relinquished The Late Late Show and began hosting a new weekly current affairs series, The Frontline. Here was Kenny doing what most of us felt he should always have been doing, and he accomplished it with his customary expertise, flair and balance. And it was a welcome replacement for the wearingly formulaic Questions and Answers, which had long outlived its day.

Meanwhile, Ryan Tubridy sauntered into Kenny’s old Late Late role with all the cocky ease that his predecessor never managed. The show suits him and he suits it, though whether it suits the viewer remains open to discussion. Certainly Tubridy’s habit of announcing in advance who his guests are going to be is a dangerous ploy – more than once this introductory spiel has persuaded me that I’ve better things to be doing with my Friday nights. 

A discreet veil should be drawn over RTE2’s ongoing compulsion to provide employment for every tenth-rate comic in the country, though it wasn’t a vintage year for comedy across the water, either. However, I quite liked the daftness of BBC2’s Miranda and remained beguiled by the adlibbing of the kids in the same channel’s Outnumbered, which also had winning performances from Hugh Dennis and Claire Skinner. Mostly, though, I contented myself with reruns of such American shows as King of Queens, Everybody Loves Raymond and Two and a Half Men – sitcoms written by people who know how to construct and deliver gags.

There were fine dramas, too. The year began with BBC1’s affecting The Diary of Anne Frank, screened nightly in half-hour episodes and featuring a lovely central performance by Ellie Kendrick. Channel 4’s Endgame, which dramatised the dying days of apartheid South Africa, was also impressive, while BBC1’s Freefall brilliantly evoked the economic crash and had a mesmerising turn from Aidan Gillen  as the obnoxious financial high-flyer who crashes to earth.

An episode from Jimmy McGovern’s second series of The Street (BBC1) remains in the memory, too. This featured publican Bob Hoskins steeling himself for a beating from local hard man Liam Cunningham and it was written and performed with extraordinary verve.

But the year’s finest drama came from BBC4. Kenneth Branagh had already brought Henning Mankell’s Wallander to the screen in a BBC2 series that was too dogged and heavy-handed for its own good. Showing how these intricate and engrossing whodunnits should be filmed, BBC4 came up with the adaptations that were made for Swedish television between 2005 and 2008.

Forget Inspector Morse or A Touch of Frost or even Cracker – the Swedish Wallander was enthralling, with satisfying plots and terrific playing, especially by Krister Henriksson in the title role and Johanna Sallstrom as his policewoman daughter. Indeed, so luminous and affecting was the latter’s performance that I still find it impossible to accept that she committed suicide during the making of the series.

RTE could do a lot worse in 2010 than acquire the rights to these marvellous dramas.  

Before its demise, RTE1’s Questions and Answers came up with a moment that will linger in the memory – the furiously eloquent impromptu tirade by audience member Michael O’Brien, who had been beaten and raped when a boy by the Rosminians in Clonmel. Minister Noel Dempsey, whose “mealy-mouthed words” had occasioned the man’s rage, looked suitably chastened.

Two outbursts marked the early weeks of Question and Answers’ successor, The Frontline. Trade unionist Jack O’Connor’s sneer at Pat Kenny’s “trophy house” was followed by a fast apology when the presenter angrily declared he didn’t want “this kind of crap coming at me.” A week later, the same host astutely opted for silence when audience member  Alan O’Brien delivered a fuming rant about his considerable salary.

In Gary and Danielle’s Northern Exposure, the BBC set aside its usual commercial strictures by allowing former footballer Gary Lineker to puff every amusement park and Chinese takeaway he came across in Northern Ireland.

If Lynch Had Invaded (RTE1) pondered what might have happened if former Taoiseach had ordered troops to cross the Border in August 1969, which, of course, he didn’t. What next from RTE? If Haughey Had Joined Fine Gael? If John Charles McQuaid Had Been a Protestant? If Bertie Had Played for Man U?

In January, Charlie Bird travelled to the Arctic on “a journey that will push me to the very edge of my endurance.” The viewer felt much the same.

On No Frontiers, Kathryn Thomas visited Rome and revealed to us that it had “heaps of history” and “any amount of wonderful Italian food.” Useful to get that learnt.

Displaying a rare glimpse of humility, Simon Cowell admitted that Britain’s Got Talent contestant Susan Boyle had been “good” for him. In his sneering attitude to her when she appeared on stage for that famous first audition, he had seen “someone I didn’t like.” Then he went on to make millions out of her success. That’s showbiz.

Meanwhile, Podge and Rodge invited their studio guests to sing along to a ditty that described Susan Boyle as being “ugly as sin” and as having a face that was “scary because it’s so hairy.” Daithi O Se, Amanda Brunker, Gerald Kean and Lisa Murphy merrily complied. They should be ashamed of themselves. 
Brian O’Driscoll, who’s the greatest Irish rugby player of my lifetime – indeed, one of the greatest players in the world game – accepted his RTE Sports Person of the Year award the other night with the grace and modesty that are characteristic of the man. Last spring, he and his Leinster and Irish teammates had provided the most thrilling sports moments of the year.

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